This Is Why You Hated the Ending to That Book

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by Meg Dowell

Too many times, I have found myself trapped in book discussions with people who do not seem to grasp the concept of writing to the emotions.

Maybe at some point in my five years of studying English at the undergraduate level I missed something about the purpose behind writing books. Writing can inform and it can entertain. Regardless of the tone or style, at least from what I understand, every story has a message. A point. And writers, the majority of the time, use pathos, emotional appeal, to get their points across.

Yet in these discussions, I often find myself sitting quietly listening to readers complain about how dissatisfied they were with a book’s ending. How the story “shouldn’t have ended that way.” I stay quiet, usually, because I don’t really always know how to respond to that. Did I miss something … or did they?

What I suppose many don’t seem to understand about storytelling is that it is not a writer’s goal, nor is it in their job description, to please their audiences. Granted, if you write a “bad” book, you aren’t going to be very successful. But there’s a big difference between writing a not-so-great book that can’t hold anyone’s interest and writing an amazing book that some people wish would have been written differently.

A few stories specifically come to mind here, but in general, when someone doesn’t like how a book ends, they feel the need to rant about how terrible the entire book or book series was. They (in extreme cases) sometimes even start calling out the author and criticizing her choices, which no one should ever really do when we’re talking about something as simple as the ending of a fictional story.

Okay. We get it. You hated the way Allegiant and Mockingjay ended (just examples). You were supposed to. These stories weren’t supposed to have happy fairytale endings. They were supposed to make you feel things. They were supposed to wreck you emotionally. That doesn’t mean the series as a whole were awful. It doesn’t mean the authors “gave up.” In fact, just the opposite. It’s brave not to take the easy way out and give your readers the ending they want. It’s risky. It’s refreshing.

You hated the ending because it made you feel something. You’re probably not angry at the book or the author. You’re upset by the events in the story, which is exactly how the author wanted you to feel.

Some books play on your emotions on purpose. Maybe you don’t like that, and that’s fine, but I’m really interested in knowing why. Why is it so hard for some people to appreciate a book for its positive qualities even if the ending did not meet their expectations? As a writer, having written stories with endings even you don’t always love, is it any easier for you?

These are the things that keep me awake at night. For some reason.

 

 

Meg Dowell is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a guest contributor with Lifehack and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner and has also written for Teen Ink and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.


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45 thoughts on “This Is Why You Hated the Ending to That Book”

  1. This is a problem that bothered me for a while. But then I had a very extreme case on the shop front of a interactive book of mine.

    A reader spent several paragraphs writing about the emotions she felt in the story, and why it was awful because I killed her favorite character at the end, then she blessed me with One Star, and a warning to others not to read the book because it doesn’t end happily.

    Since that incident every conversation like that I’ve started to take as a compliment. I’m happy I’ve made her feel these emotions and hate me so much for killing someone she felt a connection with. It’s a shame that some people will be but off by others ranting about their dissatisfaction, it’s very difficult to make peace with, but on the other hand different people will hold up the book as a shining example of doing things differently and recommend it. I like to think it all evens out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! There are always going to be people who love how you tell a story and people who don’t. I’m always curious as to why people don’t like something, because I’m curious. Readers’ opinions do matter, you just can’t let the negative ones drag you down. Some people just don’t know the best way to give constructive criticism in many cases, I feel.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. This is one reason I like to see the distribution of reviews. A lot of fives and a lot of ones is a clue there’s something happening that I need to see for myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Meg, I know the feeling about getting negative feedback about the ending to my second book, but at least not from everyone. I didn’t want it to have a “picture perfect” ending because life is not perfect and I wanted to be true to my vision. I don’t know if I would do that again for my next book that I am currently writing. What do you think? Karen:)

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    1. I think you have to do whatever feels right – that is on the surface not a very helpful thing to say, but the more we write, the more in touch with our stories we become. I’m currently writing a book that is going to have a much happier ending than I planned. I didn’t want it to be happy. But the further I dove into the story, the more I realized the ending I had originally planned just wasn’t the best choice. It’s different for every story. I don’t think it matters whether or not you always end your stories on a happier or darker note, as long as you tell a good story and close things out the way you feel is best.

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  3. Just finished watching a mini-series with a “bad” ending. Like in books, I didn’t want it to end that way. However, the ending was reality-driven… made the story feel real. It stirred up & intensified my emotions.

    As I read this post, I realize how invested in the main character I was. That’s good writing!

    You’re correct about bad-mouthing books. We are a fickle society. We have good service or a good product 100s of times & say nothing. Yet one negative event & we’re complaining to everyone who’ll listen. I’ve heard it called the 1:10 ratio. We tell 1 person about good experiences; we tell 10 people about bad ones.

    Knowing that, I try to reverse that ratio- “…seldom is heard, a discouraging word.”

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    1. I love that! Many are quick to point out the flaws of a story (whether it’s completely made up or something the news just covered!). But I consider that a good thing. I don’t think I would feel like I did a good job telling a story if there wasn’t someone out there who had a strong opinion about it, haha. 🙂

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  4. Personally, as a reader rather than a writer I think of a ‘good’ ending as one where it ends the way the story realistically takes it, whatever that may be – and conversely a ‘bad’ ending is one where ridiculous leaps of faith and twists in the plot create something unrealistic, just to make it a ‘happy ending’ 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Really great post. After I read ‘Allegiant’ and Triss died, I started bawling. Seriously out right crying the writing of that moment effected me so much. I had this picture of Four and Triss ending up together in the end and the writer ruined that for me. It took me awhile but I started thinking what you had stated here, that the author had meant for the readers of Allegiant to feel this way for Triss, arguably the main character of the book. But it also why in the last book she starts writing from both Triss and Four’s perspective. And since this book was science fiction, dystopian, and romance, it doesn’t always mean there is a happy ending. You use this example, so I use this book. But I have read others where a character dying in the end made you remember and think about what the writer was saying through the death of main characters.

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    1. I know at least a few people who criticized the entire trilogy for the way that book ended, but I loved it. I didn’t exactly expect it, but that was why it was so valuable to me. I hated that it happened, but I understood why it had to happen. Sometimes I wonder if I think that way just because I’m a writer, or if it’s because some people just can’t tell the difference between being upset that an event occurred in a story and hating the story because it made them feel things.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sometimes the only way to resolve plot conflicts is to write a “bad” ending. As a writer, I delight in taking readers in directions they hadn’t imagined. Life and fiction don’t always end evenly.

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    1. Truth. 🙂 I always write with my readers in mind, but my focus is always on the story and whether or not I am telling a good one, not so much on whether or not a reader will ‘want’ this or that to happen. My mission is to write a great story, not give ‘the people’ exactly what they want. That seems to be an unpopular viewpoint but it’s how I roll!

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  7. Although my novels have emotionally satisfying endings, I’m perplexed when a reader asserts that the book could have been better if it were written a different way. My characters dictate how their stories are told. If I try to manipulate them, they shut up and refuse to speak to me.

    Maybe it’s a mistake not to write for an intended audience (genre), but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. And not every story can or should have a “happy ending.” The resolution depends on the plot and how the characters’ lives evolve…

    Enjoyed the post! Pinned & shared.

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    1. So I’m not the only one who believes my characters have minds of their own … that’s very comforting. 🙂 I’ve had characters manipulate ME plenty of times and have just learned to let it happen, usually it turns out for the better in the end.

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  8. Sometimes a reader wants everything to resolve happily. Sometimes, though, when a reader is resentful of an ending and starts badmouthing the whole book/series/author, the problem is that he or she is unable to articulate the underlying problem that’s irritating them.

    This is often that the ending doesn’t flow logically from the story. Or that there aren’t enough signposts throughout the story of where it’s going. (I’m not talking about bashing readers over the head here.) Or the end is simply too short, over too quickly.

    I once read a beautifully written romance trilogy where the co-protagonist/enemies–each heir to their own kingdom–struggled with logical conflict between themselves, but learned to stand together against outside threats. But the ending…dang. One essentially said, ‘Let’s just rule our kingdoms together.’ The other replied, ‘OK.” They moaned a bit more over injuries they’d suffered during the climactic battle, then the story was over. I was sooo disappointed!

    I’ve read that resolutions are nothing more than an author-indulgence, that readers only ever remember the climax and that it’s for them to make up whatever resolution suits themselves based on their own reading of the story. As a writer, I still mull that advice over, but an abrupt ending sure ruined that trilogy for me. The writing was brilliant, I even use portions of it as a model for myself for certain effects, but I’ll never read the whole thing through again because there’s no pay-off for me.

    Just my $0.02’ worth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re onto something. Most of the times when I ask my readers what they want most, it’s more of the “happy ending” so the get a feel for the couple after the climax. I’m a romance writer catering to romance readers, so take my comment with that in mind. 🙂

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    2. I read a great sci-fi/dystopian series (that ended up only being two books, not sure what went on there) that ended terribly. It felt rushed and incomplete. So I wondered if the author had been planning on writing a trilogy and the contract didn’t work out that way. That was the only explanation I could think of, because it was a great concept, and it just …. ended. I was disappointed. When that happens, it truly feels like the author just gave up.. It had a lot of potential and it just fell flat. But it happens I suppose.

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  9. I agree with most of this, but I do disagree slightly with one of the finer points: if you are trying to be published, on some level you are writing for your readers. If not, you won’t have much more get published.

    That said, I think it is important that an ending satisfy the promise of the book (for good or ill). It doesn’t have to be a happy ending (or an expected ending). The favorite characters don’t need to live, and things certainly don’t need to end up in a fancy bow. But you need to address the points opened, even if only to call out that you won’t be closing those points, or that the hero failed at her mission and the world won’t in fact end up a better place. Ignoring the pieces in motion just looks like the author dropped the ball, or couldn’t figure how to tie it all off in a way that makes sense.

    Great article with lots to think about!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve definitely read books where it feels like the author just ‘gave up’ on the story and that’s still hard for me to wrap my head around. This is the only reason I outline, AFTER I write – to make sure the loose ends are tied off, maybe not always in the way people want, but to make sure that if I go off on any sort of tangent or open up a subplot, it either all runs back into the main thread or it all resolves by the end.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I suppose I should preface my comments with “shallow reader speaking here” – I prefer happy endings. I am not saying that “Romeo and Juliet should be rewritten. They should be realistic happy endings.

    I also recognize when a writer has involved me to the the point that I am emotionally invested in the characters that is great writing. When that happens, there are two possible ways that the ending does not meet my expectations as a reader. First is when characters fail to live up to the potential the author created. One can argue that the author is painting the human condition – people do not live up to our expectations and are prone to failure. As someone who reads for escape, this heavy dose of human reality is neither enlightening nor uplifting. I know people who are touched by it – just not me.

    The second reason is when a character is killed off for trivial reasons (think Garp’s son in “World according to Garp”). Sometimes a character is killed off to move the plot forward – sad but necessary. Sometimes a character dies in an act of redemption – again sad, but ultimately uplifting. Sometimes a character dies because of literary “evil”. Sad, but I can accept as a necessary element of plot. It is when the death seems to lack point or meaning that I have a problem. Again, as someone who reads for escape, I do not find random death meaningful or fulfilling. I get that the world is fundamentally unfair and capricious. But wrapping up a character line with a decent person dying because he did a cheesy party trick wrong seems wantonly cruel to the character and to the audience. The author toyed with my emotions and I am not happy about.

    I am probably in the minority here. “Serious literature” seems to get its mark by being morose. But the question was posed and I have my answer to it. I enjoyed the article and I have much to think about.

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    1. I love your viewpoint here. The thing about writing for an audience is, everyone is different. For example, not all young adult audiences are guaranteed to like the same YA novel. So the fact that you don’t like certain ways of storytelling is completely understandable. This is why I try to remind writers not to worry so much about negative reviews and feedback. There are always going to be people who don’t like certain things. Some people out there turn it into a personal attack on the author for some reason, but from your comments I don’t perceive you as one of those people. As mentioned in a comment above, some readers just can’t tell the difference between feeling emotionally invested in a story and feeling personally victimized by an author. Or, something like that. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I think in some cases it’s more of a the ending didn’t satisfy the narrative. With Mockingjay, the ending 100% did so. It wasn’t the cliched happily ever after ending, because Hunger Games wasn’t about that (despite the ironic and meta real life media slant that it was ever Team Peta vs. Team Gale, but that’s another issue); HG was about survival and what Katniss would do to ensure that for her and hers.

    You’re absolutely right that a writer doesn’t need to and shouldn’t be writing to make their readers happy (GRRM lives this and is considered one of the best writers of our era), but from a narrative standpoint, the ending should fit with the story it’s attached to. If readers are critiquing that, then it’s a valid concern.

    Some of my favorite stories (in fact my #1 favorite story, which isn’t a book at all) are heartbreaking, and leave questions unanswered and truths untold. I love them for that even as I wish the characters could have a happy ending. It’s an incongruence in loving/understanding that such an ending fits with the narrative, but still wishing that it could be different. Done well it’s a perfect mirror for life and we empathize with such characters in that. An author that can pull off such a feat is a master storyteller indeed.

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    1. Completely agree! Sometimes I hesitate to write some of the dark stories my brain comes up with. But in a sense, that’s real life. I am a reader who appreciates being able to relate to something in a story that feels real. Not everyone is like that, but as I like to say, as a writer, the first thing people should learn is that they will never be able to please everyone.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nope not in the least. It’s a fine dance learning what critiques to heed and which to disregard. Some are legitimate concerns, while others are just the squawking of the masses. It can be hard to weed it out, and you may be in a position were you have to defend you work, but your work is always worth defending. For me I think about things waaaay too much and over-analyze, and while I can’t say I haven’t made some questionable decisions in a narrative, I can can usually justify it.

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  12. I write romance, and there better be a happy ending because that genre demands it. 🙂

    However, as a reader, I enjoy psychological thriller and horror, and those seldom have happy endings. Or, if there is a happy ending, there’s a somber note to a lot of them.

    I think some genres lend themselves to a happier ending than others. It could be the reader doesn’t understand the genre and what’s expected of it.

    A lot of people reading the Hunger Games trilogy ended up involved in the romance subplot because they were looking for romance. That’s why they were upset by the ending. However, if you were going into the stories understanding the specific genre this was for and understanding the romance was only a subplot, then you wouldn’t have been upset by the ending. (A romantic subplot does not make for a romance novel. So in this instance, anything goes. Peeta could have died and it would have fulfilled the genre’s requirements. As a romance lover, I’m glad he lived, but it really wasn’t necessary to the genre.)

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    1. I never thought of the HG issue that way, but that totally makes sense. I do not write romance, but I do know that when I’m reading one, I want that happy ending and I’d better get it. 🙂 I wrote a story a few months ago where two people romantically involved did not end up together. However, it was not a romance, so I didn’t feel like they had to. The story was better off ending that way. If I were writing a romance, not keeping them together would have been unsatisfactory. Both writers and readers need to understand their genres going into reading or writing something!

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  13. So true because I find, as a writer, I go with how I feel the character would act and the result may not necessarily be considered a “Hollywood” ending. There may be ambiguities or may be downright tragic. On the other hand, as a reader, I tend to get caught up in the story and my natural inclination to think is hoping for the so-called happy ending, or at least an ending satisfactory to me. So it is interesting how I think differently as a reader and writer.

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    1. Which is exactly why all writers should read! I think I understand my potential readers better BECAUSE I have been in their position before. I am able to separate what I want vs. what the story needs. Maybe many readers who do not write struggle because they aren’t able to focus on the story as a whole as well as a writer might. I can’t say I know for sure from experience. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I know exactly what you’re talking about here, I think anyway. My MiL doesn’t like any story that doesn’t have a happy ending. She believes in her heart of hearts that a story isn’t worth reading unless it has a happy ending. Therefore, a book like The Notebook is a bad story according to her. I, on the other hand, though the story was marvelous. It had drama, humor, tenderness, excitement, etc. I identified with Allie. Despite the bitter sweet ending, the message of the story was one of hope and the endurance of love.

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    1. Exactly. I loved that book! The point of the story was not that there would be a ‘happy’ ending – technically, there was. They ended up together. That was what mattered. 🙂

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  15. I agree that happy endings aren’t always the best ending, but I think a certain level of resolution is needed for readers to have a chance to emotionally grieve. To process their feelings and contemplate where things now stand. If you wrap things up, too fast, in can feel trite and readers can feel cheated.

    Also, writers should consider whether the reader has anything to enjoy if the ending is sad. Was there enough beautiful, enjoyable moments along the way to make it worth rereading, even if it ended badly for some characters? Or was the reader just sticking to the narration to find out what happens, staying in the fight for the win? If that’s the case, then giving them an unhappy ending is taking away the whole reason why they read it in the first place. It’s like having a dull job and dragging through to payday only to find out that you were volunteering all the while. At which point, we shouldn’t be surprised that the readers are suing through bad reviews. They expected one thing and got another, and the substitute doesn’t repay them for the time they invested.

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    1. If there is a ‘sad’ ending, there definitely needs to be a good reason for it. Take The Notebook for example. Sad ending. But that made the story that much more powerful, in a good way. There always needs to be purpose behind every storytelling decision a writer makes.

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      1. See, I wouldn’t say The Notebook was all that sad. They’d had years of happiness, and so the end, while emotional, wasn’t depressing. And I guess that’s the difference. If the whole book is one long struggle, and it’s capped by sorrow, then there is nothing to balance the scales. Whereas, if there was sorrow and joy, and sorrow had the last word in the plot, there was still all that joy that one could remember and treasure.

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  16. Thanx for the like! Great explanation about “bad” books vs. writing! “You hated the ending because it made you feel something. You’re probably not angry at the book or the author. You’re upset by the events in the story, which is exactly how the author wanted you to feel.” Nailed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed the read. 🙂 I just get frazzled when readers bash authors because they told good stories … Have you read J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy? SAD, DEVASTATING ending – but I LOVED it. When readers miss the point of a story because they’re so caught up in being ‘sad,’ it makes ME feel sad for that reader. Not that writers should have to explain themselves, but they often have to defend themselves, and I am not a fan of that.

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  17. As both a reader and a writer, I’m the kind of reader who rants about “bad endings” – but I don’t consider a bad ending to be something that makes me sad or doesn’t end the way I want it, it’s if it jars with the rest of the story in a completely illogical way. For example, I loved the ending of My Sister’s Keeper for example, because although it was so jarring, it suited the tragedy of the story perfectly. However, I once read a science fiction book that was about this machine (I can’t remember what type of machine) and there was a vital piece missing and they were all scientists and were dragged into this action and murder to find this piece. It was sciencey and logical and action-packed. I got to the end of the story and what was the missing piece? Wishful thinking. You had to /want/ the machine to work. That was it, that was the ending. A logical, scientific novel ended with something as wishy washy as wishful thinking. As if anyone who had tried to use the machine before hadn’t actually wanted it to work. All that drama and excitement, and it was such a boring ending. It didn’t suit the story AT ALL, and it just felt like a bit of a cop out. It left a really bad taste in my mouth.

    That’s the kind of bad ending I rant about!

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  18. This post is spot on when it comes to people’s complaints on book endings. As a reader, writer, & blogger and I can personally attest to seeing negative reviews left on other books simply because the book didn’t end the way the reader wanted it to. The common thread of negative reviews such as the examples you alluded to (e.g. Mockingjay) stems from unfulfilled expectations. Many readers expect a happy-ending and when they don’t get their “fairy-tale” ending, some readers will write-off the book or entire series as “bad.”

    While certain genres may tend to end on a happier note more so than others, I think the important thing to consider whether the book’s ending was successful is if it’s a realistic conclusion for that given story. A book doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending to be “good.” The fact that an ending made you feel something for the character and the events that unfolded, whether good or bad, is proof that the writer did something right. If I made you feel something, than I know I did my job as a writer.

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